Becoming a Modern Quilter: Design Principles Part 1

Modern quilt design principles are fairly new as an organized approach to quilting. So, it’s not surprising that many quilters are still somewhat confused.

Let’s start with the basic question I hear over and over from quilters as they show their quilts:

Is this a modern quilt? I don’t think this quilt is modern…..

This is the question and statement I often hear when talking with quilters I meet in local quilt shops, online or when I make presentations to guilds.  But, it’s actually the WRONG way to think about modern quilting because it’s a Yes/No answer.  This is not a pass/fail exam!!  It really distresses me when quilters think they’ve ‘failed’ at making a quilt modern because they believe there is only ONE way to make a modern quilt.

Instead, start looking for the modern quilt design principles or elements in the quilts.  Here’s the question that I encourage quilters to ask:

What design elements of this quilt make this a modern quilt?

People have been making quilts for thousands of years.  What we call approaches to ‘traditional quilting’ are practices that are at least a couple hundred years old.

I believe that modern quilt design principles are fairly straightforward.  They are principles that serve to inspire creativity and exploration– they serve as guidelines.

Please do not use them as ‘rules’ or feel that making a modern quilt is a pass/fail exam.  Modern quilt design principles are NOT a rigid formula and I hope that quilters don’t feel constrained or shut out.   A modern quilt does not have to check all the boxes to be modern. (in my presentations, I always talk about the ‘myths’ of modern quilting!)

We should remember that modern quilting is a relatively new movement that has flexibility and innovation at its heart. Modern quilters build on and honor the hundreds of years of quilting tradition. But, don’t worry about the modern ‘quilt police’ showing up to squint at your quilt. If they do show up, politely sit them down and educate them.

Modern quilting is a movement that is open, diverse, innovative, welcoming and, most of all, FUN! Let’s keep it that way!!


Modern Quilt Design Principles

Let’s start with a basic refresher–my personal list.  It’s a list of modern design principles that I keep in mind when I look at my own quilt designs.  I ask myself,  ‘what makes this quilt modern?’.

Here is my personal list of the design principles of modern quilting.  My list is based on the principles listed by The Modern Quilt Guild WITH my own interpretations and additions.
You won’t see ALL of these elements in a modern quilt, but the modern quilter usually has one or two (or more) of these elements in the quilt.
  • Simplicity and Minimalism
  • Reinterpretations of the past (using traditional blocks in a new way, for example)
  • Exaggerating/Changing/Playing With Block Scale
  • Alternative grid layouts
  • Infinite Edge [no binding and no borders OR making the binding and borders from the background fabric]
  • Asymmetry
  • Open space or negative space that covers a noticeable percentage of the quilt top—usually one color or a subtle monochromatic ombre
  • Double negative space [two colors used in nearly equal amounts.  My own idea but I’m seeing it in work by others now]
  • Experimenting with block scale/size – for example, making a quilt top that is just ONE large block floating in a lot of neutral space
  • Bold, modern graphics in print fabrics [and notice the new lines of batiks coming out each year!!]
  • Modern color palette in prints and solids
  • Improvisation – being willing to experiment and play with your layout, with the fabric choices and all other aspects of your design as you go along
  • Maximalism–newly emerging trend seen in social media. See my post HERE

[divider]Modern Quilt Design Principles in Action

Let’s look at how I’ve used these principles in some of my quilts. I’ll continue to post more of my thoughts about modern quilt design in coming weeks. That’s why I called this Part 1…LOL….

I encourage you to download the planning sheet Modern Quilt Design Principles Worksheet and use it to plan your next modern quilt!  You can also use this sheet as a discussion guide at a guild meeting or cottage group.

Be Brave!!  Be Free!!

My hope is that you will explore modern quilting and find your own unique quilt design voice!  Throw away any fear, ignore the quilt police voices (including my own!!).  Experiment, have fun and keep learning and exploring.  Let’s push the boundaries of modern quilting!

Selvedge X Quilt

Selvedge X Quilt Pattern available in my store.
Detail showing selvedges

Modern quilt design principles used in this quilt are:

  • Simplicity & Minimalism
  • Alternate Grid Layout
  • Playing with Scale
  • Modern Color Palette [Grunge for the negative space and Cotton + Steel selvedges]
  • Use of Negative Space
  • Infinite edge binding [faced binding tutorial here]

[divider]MidCentury Modern Curve Quilt

MidCentury Modern Curve Quilt. Workshop available and pattern coming soon. Fabrics are ombres.  The white fabrics are two different tone-on-tone white fabrics.


Detail of MidCentury Modern Curve quilt. Notice that I added gray as a color in this quilt. This is an ombre as well.

Modern quilt design principles used in this quilt are:

  • Reinterpretations of the past (traditional drunkards path block completely reinterpreted)
  • Exaggerating/Changing/Playing With Block Scale [blocks finish at about 18 inches]
  • Alternative grid layout
  • Infinite Edge [another faced binding]
  • Asymmetry
  • Open space or negative  space that covers a noticeable percentage of the quilt top.  Here, I’ve incorporated negative space inside each block as well.
  • Modern color palette [using ombres and gray]
  • Improvisation – The fracturing process is very improvisational. I teach this in the workshop and instructions will be in the pattern.
  • Maximalism–newly emerging See my post HERE

[divider]Patriotic Diamonds Quilt

Even a traditional red/white and blue palette can be updated!  Quilt pattern in my book Patriotic Modern. Available on and local books stores.

Modern quilt design principles used in this quilt are:

  • Simplicity/Assymetry/ Use of Negative Space [most patriotic quilts have multiple rows of pieced blocks but these float in negative space with red strips to balance them]
  • Reinterpretations of the past (using traditional blocks in a new way, for example)
  • Alternative grid layout
  • Infinite Edge [faced binding]
  • Modern color palette [adding a mottled gray updates this traditional palette]

[divider]Slender Inserts Quilts

Slender Inserts Gray Ombre. Pattern coming 2018. This is a new workshop offering.
Slender inserts in white and black. Also taught in my workshop. Inserts finish at less than 1/4 inch.

There is a lot going on in both of these quilts.  Minimalism is tough for me because I love, love, love saturated color.  But I’ve enjoyed starting this series.  Here are the design principles I used:

  • Simplicity and Minimalism.  On the otherr hand, is the gray ombre version really maximalism?  The negative space is a very saturated gray ombre. Room for debate here?!
  • Infinite Edge [faced bindings]
  • Asymmetry–although the block grid is symmetrical and traditional, my use of negative space makes it appear asymmetrical
  • Open space or negative space that covers a noticeable percentage of the quilt top—usually one color or a subtle monochromatic ombre like the gray
  • Modern color palette [white and black is very minimalist and modern]
  • Improvisation – the skinny pieced strips were all made improvisationally.See these details below

    I used bright ombres in some of the strips. I also used some of the gray ombre in the strips. Slender inserted strips finish at 1/4 inch or less.
I used a black and white print for some of the strips. In this detail, you can see that I used the white background fabric for ‘ghost strips’. These strips finish at 1/4 inch or less.

16 thoughts on “Becoming a Modern Quilter: Design Principles Part 1”

  1. This is an excellent post. I too inwardly groan when quilters qualify their work as, ‘ well, I know this isn’t modern but…….’ I think the first question then is, ‘were you aiming to make a modern or modern influenced quilt?’ . If the answer is ‘no’ then we should help them celebrate their creation. The creative process and the creation are more important than the label . If the answer is, ‘yes’ then we need to celebrate the creation first, then look together for the modern aspects (if the maker wants to do this). Again, great blog post!

  2. This helps make things clearer for me. I don’t think I’m firmly set in any camp….traditional, modern, art, etc. I just like to make quilts that interest me and try new things.

  3. Really interesting – I’m going to share it with both my groups (Edinburgh MQG and a Modern Group which is part of the UK Quilter’s Guild) and look forward to reading part 2! I have a lecture I take to traditional groups in Scotland ‘what is a modern quilt’ and I like to point out a lot of the same things about the fluidity of interpretation. I’m glad we are all sharing and discussing this!

    1. That’s fabulous Jo! Mostly, I am presenting and teaching to ‘traditional’ guilds because they are curious and want to explore. But, inevitably, they come in with an assumption that modern is a very narrow definition. Of course, the magazines are and are not helping because they seem to show only one or two styles of modern quilts these days. But, I’m sure they will catch up with what’s emerging soon!

  4. Elizabeth A. Franck

    With degrees in Art History and Art, where the principles and elements of design were foundational, I appreciate your presentation of these in relation to the Modern Quilting Movement. The inclusion of a planning worksheet encourages archiving design ideas for future reference. You encourage both flexibility and precision in planning, designing and construction. I agree with “pushing the boundaries of modern quilting” I love to design – I started with art quilts, inspired by nature, all original designs.
    Modern quilting grabbed my love of geometry – deconstructing and reconstructing traditional quilt blocks, architectural designs and
    elements using graph paper, mechanical pencil, protractor and compass has my brain spinning with ideas and designs.
    I started following you when I was searching for quilt guilds in Florida from Port RIchey to Dunedin and south. I have your book, Madly Modern Quilts your thorough presentation of “process” is both inspiring and practical.
    Thank you for all your sharing. I hope to meet you when I relocate to Florida within the next two years.

    1. Thanks so much Elizabeth. I love your comments. I try to encourage quilters to look at lots of art (it is so wonderful to see so much online from the museums) and view our art form in this larger context. Looking forward to meeting you IRL one day soon!

  5. Thank you! It is helpful to have a few guidelines. I don’t really view my quilts as “modern”, but I find that others often do. Have a wonderful day!

    1. Hi Jennifer, I meet a lot of quilters who say the same thing. I’m always glad to hear that they are exploring what might be possible in their quilts–that’s what’s most important. And, it doesn’t matter how we label ourselves. On the other hand, having common language (those principles) really helps us to have fun conversations.

  6. I love your definition, and, your quilts. This is my definition I’ve used for years: No pattern, No rules, No problem. At least that’s how I’ve been quilting for years. Most of the time I have no idea what the end quilt will look like when I start. I pick fabric I like, and, just start sewing, if I don’t like it, I cut it, and, keep adding to it till it’s something I like. Besides, I hated following directions growing up, and, have carried that over to my quilts.

  7. Thank you so much for this post Carole! I know this is late (I am very much a novice quilter!) Your post makes a lot of sense to me as I love modern art especially the Futurists, Cubists and the Fauvists. So much energy in each of their paintings! I have tried traditional patchwork blocks but all those calculations give me a headache LOL! Improv is my preferred method. I am obsessed with the wonky log cabin block ♡ look forward to your next instalment 🙂

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